The Internet is made up of many computers which communicate rapidly with each other using all sorts of networks and languages. If a user wants to read a particular webpage, for instance, the personal computer requests it from the Internet Service Provider, which in turn sends it to the website itself. This communicates with the server computers that contain the information on that website, and they respond with the requested information, sending it to the ISP. Finally, the ISP sends it to the user’s PC, which then displays it.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is broadly similar. It is defined by the ITU as “a global infrastructure for the information society, enabling advanced services by interconnecting (physical and virtual) things based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies.” In other words, it is about creating a whole society and physical world where a multitude of ordinary objects are connected wirelessly to share data across a network.
What is the IoT?
The ‘ordinary’ Internet is composed of just computers, whereas the IoT links all kinds of things: stoves, washing machines, doors, printers. Almost anything can be made part of the Internet of Things. What makes them a part of the IoT (as opposed to ordinary doors, printers, and so on) is that they are connected to the Internet. They can talk to each other and all the other things on the Internet. To take one instance, an ordinary alarm clock performs one function: to sound an alarm at a preset time. But an IoT clock could wake you up, get your coffee maker started, and instruct your cell phone to book a cab.
The IoT goes way beyond convenience. Suppose a manufacturing plant goes below production targets one day. In normal circumstances, this would be reported to a manager, who would then adjust the workload for the next couple of days to make up the loss. But this could be subject to error in several places: the yield might be incorrectly reported, the email might not be sent due to a system error, the manager might not read it in time. Making the production assembly IoT-connected, however, takes care of these potential problems. The yield is recorded automatically, and the servers immediately record and report the discrepancy, while adjusting the workflow accordingly. Short of complete power loss, the production process is set to run smoothly and efficiently once the system is well-tuned.
Right now, there are about 8.4 billion IoT devices online. Most of them are smart TVs, smart speakers, and smart door locks. But the Internet of Things is growing fast: companies are adopting IoT-connected security cameras; people are installing smart electricity meters in their houses. We use fitness trackers and smartwatches in our day-to-day life: the IoT is growing every minute.
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IoT would be able to run a ‘smart city’ with transportation synchronized to traffic needs, and with vehicles choosing the best routes; automatically calculated to maximize road longevity and reduce traffic jams. Water and electricity production are automatically engineered for maximum efficiency. Depleted supplies are automatically ordered online. Waste levels are automatically monitored inside garbage containers to calculate optimum collection routes. Health sensors automatically pick up danger signals for diagnosis and prevention of illnesses.
The IoT thus comprises both hardware and the software that connects them to networks such as the 4G Long-Term Evolution, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth as well as apps for data storage, programming platforms and analysis of the data to present usable and useful outcomes of the collected data. The presence of connections between all kinds of things means that the whole world acts as a sensor to detect how people behave or react, where they go and why, when people do things and how effective their actions are, as well as to monitor the physical and social environment for changes, good or bad, and respond accordingly. Administrators can assess and model possible courses of action while looking at the impact and effectiveness of such actions. Overall, the IoT, also called the second digital revolution, can transform the way society, industry and governments work even more than the first.
The IoT is not a new concept, since it has been named and described ever since the 1990s, but the use of sensors to read and operate a network of things was not described as an IoT application, nor was the use of sensors connected to a central database to detect early warning signs of floods or quakes. However, we still need to find out how to use all this information for the best. Besides this, security breaches are of the greatest concern, and the question of how and when to regulate this technology is therefore under intense discussion. Anyone involved in designing, setting up or implementing the IoT should, therefore, be on the alert for possible privacy and security concerns and discover ways to prevent them rather than mop up the messy consequences.
Some obstacles that must be negotiated skillfully during the implementation of IoT projects include:
- Poor leadership and lack of planning
- Low level of skill in using the obtained data, making the IoT a useless exercise
- Poor funding, which hampers the acquisition and use of IT tools required to implement IoT projects
- Lack of transparent procurement policies that slow down technology acquisition
- Inability to guarantee privacy and security from governmental sources or private hackers, the systems are interoperable, and that the investment will be recovered
The IoT is already in application in traffic planning, electric power generation and supply to sense and respond to uneven power fluctuations, managing vehicle fleets, or policing. However, only assurance of protection of the data and the individual can garner trust in the use of the IoT for more applications in future, coupled with well-designed systems.
Some government initiatives that are taking advantage of the IoT include:
- The Array of Things - uses modules containing multiple sensors on various city facilities to gain information which is then made publicly available. This could then guide innovative ways to apply this data. This might include air quality measurements, pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow, and the like.
- The Smart City Challenge - centered around connecting vehicles so that, for instance, different public transit services could coordinate better to prevent two connecting services from missing each other, or traffic could be routed better by adjusting the length of red lights or using less congested streets or indicating free space in parking lots.